WASHINGTON, D.C. — There was a time, within living memory, when giants strode the Senate chamber.
Henry M. Jackson of Washington state, vigilant spokesman for national security. Howard Baker Jr. of Tennessee, exemplar of reasonableness. Mike Mansfield of Montana, fount of wisdom. Jacob Javits of New York, introspective and progressive. Richard Lugar of Indiana, steady and dependable. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, sentinel of integrity. Robert F. Wagner of New York, brave defender of labor. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, devout isolationist turned devoted internationalist. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, personification of practicality. Plus, two men of roiling partisanship, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, unlikely booster of civil rights, and Robert J. Dole of Kansas, polished in the nuance of legislating.
These were lawmakers of a special breed, working their trade in a special time – perhaps not Clay or Webster or Calhoun, but the Great Triumvirate of the 19th century lived in a different country (Clay’s Kentucky was then the West), in a different time (they served when the first steam locomotive was introduced in the United States), with different values (Calhoun was an ardent defender of slavery), and with different ethics (Webster would be convicted in five minutes by any modern jury examining campaign-finance violations).
Today’s Senate is less a legislative chamber than a television studio, less a forum for innovation than a platform for invective, less a deliberative body than a reflection of the body politic. On the surface that last critique – that the Senate reflects the country – might seem an odd characteristic to disparage. But the Founders never conceived of the Senate as a reflection of the nation; that role was delegated to the House. They wanted a Senate that led the country, a body where lawmakers of unusual probity examined matters of eternal consequence.
In that conception, it didn’t really matter that some senators were out of touch. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, son of an ambassador to Portugal and Hungary, was so isolated from the world beyond the chamber that, in a famous but perhaps apocryphal story, he thought Thom McAn, then a prominent retail chain, was a person who provided him with shoes; today, thousands of students attend college with grants named for him. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut was heir to the E.R. Squibb fortune; today, thousands of disabled Americans have access to public and private facilities in large measure because of his work.
Nor was this a matter simply of personal wealth. Dole, son of a Depression-era cream and egg distributor and gravely wounded in World War II, has been a spokesman for veterans for decades and remains so today, at age 94. George Norris of Nebraska, the 11th child of severely impoverished farmers, steered passage of the Tennessee Valley Authority through Congress. Both Harry Truman, who described his Senate years as his happiest, and Gary Hart, who worshipped the Senate, came from modest country families. Both used the Senate as springboards for national leadership.
Party mattered then – Dirksen and Johnson were fierce partisans – but it didn’t matter so much that it stood in the way of making America better. Dirksen and Johnson proved that.
“There was a period of time where there was more bipartisanship,” says Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. “People weren’t exactly locking arms with each other every day then, but it rarely reached the point where we are now, when partisanship and ideology kind of grind everything to a halt. We need to look in the mirror.”
Now Ira Shapiro, once a leading American trade negotiator and later the author of an evocative book on the Senate’s golden years of the 1960s and 1970s, is holding up a mirror to the Senate. He has written an important new volume on the contemporary Senate, flaws and all – and in fact the sad story is that the flaws have become the defining characteristics of the chamber. In a book with an attention-grabbing title, “Broken: Can the Senate Save Itself and the Country?” Shapiro writes:
“(T)hose 100 men and women can change the way they operate; they do not have to be talented and committed individuals trapped in a dysfunctional institution. They can stop being blind partisans and go back to being real senators, focused on collective action for the national interest. They have an obligation to rise above the partisanship, not simply mirror or exacerbate it.”
Shapiro calls on Senate leaders to cultivate the “mutual trust and respect” that once characterized the chamber. He worries about the cost of elections and the permanent campaigns that are its result, the degrading of political conversation spawned by Facebook and Twitter, the impact of lobbying’s growth and the decline of the quality of debate.
To address this crisis, Shapiro proposes some fundamental legislative changes, including returning to the notion that “non-germane” elements and amendments not be added to bills. “The Senate,” he said, “is the only legislative body that can be debating transportation or energy or foreign aid and suddenly finding itself considering amendments on abortion, gun control or school prayer.”
One of the results: drastically lower congressional productivity, from 1,722 bills passed during the single George H.W. Bush term (1989-1993) to the 540 bills passed during the first Barack Obama term (2009-2013) – a decline of 70 percent in two decades.
Then again, cynics (as a matter of mirth) and conservatives (as a matter of conviction) believe that the less the Senate does, the better off the country is.
Even so, hardly anyone thinks the Senate is performing up to its potential, or to its purpose.
“The proof that the Senate can be fixed is that it was operating a lot better years ago under basically the same rules as we have today,” says Sen. Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican. “People are finally realizing we have to do something, and it may take getting to individual senators and convincing them we have to work together to get things done.”
A small thing, perhaps, but it could have a big impact.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter @ShribmanPG.